A seminary classmate once argued in a class presentation that the account of Jonah is not historical - it didn't really happen. Instead it was written as a parable with a moral lesson intended for the people of Israel. They were supposed to see themselves in the fictional tale of a rebellious prophet, be reminded of God's mercy and lead to repentance.
I disagree with my friend. I believe Jonah's story is real history for at least two reasons. First, the book begins not with the Hebrew equivalent of "once upon a time," but with the familiar formula seen at the beginning of other prophetic books, "The word of the LORD came to [a prophet]." Every language has literary cues to the type of writing being used, and this account reads like real history. Second, importantly, Jesus seems to treat the characters in Jonah, including the repentant men of Nineveh and the fish itself, as real when he announces himself as the New Jonah in Matthew 12:38-45.
My classmate's argument, however, holds a truth worth thinking over. Certainly Jonah is more than just a fascinating Sunday School story, or the mere retelling of history. It is a retelling in a certain way at a certain time and with certain goals. It takes the form of a tract, calling for an intended reaction from the hearers. I believe it was meant to wake up Israel from their disobedience and lack of conformity to the redemptive purposes of God in them, and through them to the nations. By extension, it is meant to show us the same truths today.
Recently I heard an unsettling report about the Central Asian city where we used to live. Insurgents have taken to piling up the heads of their enemies beside public roads as an expression of their brutality and a warning to others. The Assyrian Ninevites used to do the same barbaric act with the heads of their enemies. They were known for their cruelty, and were, at the time of Jonah, threatening the kingdoms of Israel with their violence. The story and its context involve a clash of civilizations, a threat to God's people, and yet, a surprising call to mercy and mission, and the remarkable salvation of a people.
It's a message we need today.
One way to understand Jonah is in three contrasts, or foils. I'll attempt to lay these out in the next three blog posts, and draw attention to the relevance I believe this book has for the church today. It might not answer all of our questions about how to respond to terrorism, immigration, the refugee crisis, and other global issues. But hopefully it will help shape our hearts, and give us all a little more of the perspective of the Kingdom as we confront our world in 2016.